Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is a brain disorder due to vitamin B1 (thiamine) deficiency.
Korsakoff psychosis; Alcoholic encephalopathy; Encephalopathy - alcoholic; Wernicke's disease; Alcohol use - Wernicke; Alcoholism - Wernicke; Thiamine deficiency - Wernicke
Wernicke encephalopathy and Korsakoff syndrome are different conditions that often occur together. Both are due to brain damage caused by a lack of vitamin B1.
Lack of vitamin B1 is common in people who have alcohol use disorder. It is also common in people whose bodies do not absorb food properly (malabsorption). This can sometimes occur with a chronic illness or after weight-loss (bariatric) surgery.
Korsakoff syndrome, or Korsakoff psychosis, tends to develop as Wernicke encephalopathy as symptoms go away. Wernicke encephalopathy causes brain damage in lower parts of the brain called the thalamus and hypothalamus. Korsakoff psychosis results from permanent damage to areas of the brain involved with memory.
Symptoms of Wernicke encephalopathy include:
Symptoms of Korsakoff syndrome include:
Examination of the nervous/muscular system may show damage to many nerve systems:
The person may appear poorly nourished. The following tests are used to check a person's nutrition level:
Liver enzymes may be high in people with a history of long-term alcohol abuse.
Other conditions that may cause vitamin B1 deficiency include:
A brain MRI may show changes in the tissue of the brain. But if Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is suspected, treatment should start immediately. Usually a brain MRI exam is not needed.
The goals of treatment are to control symptoms and to prevent the disorder from getting worse. Some people may need to stay in the hospital early in the condition to help control symptoms.
Monitoring and special care may be needed if the person is:
Vitamin B1 is usually given by injection into a vein or a muscle as soon as possible. This may improve symptoms of:
Vitamin B1 often does not improve loss of memory and intellect that occur with Korsakoff syndrome.
Stopping alcohol use can prevent more loss of brain function and damage to nerves. A well-balanced, nourishing diet can help, but it is not a substitute for stopping alcohol use.
Without treatment, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome gets steadily worse, and can be life threatening. With treatment, it is possible to control symptoms (such as uncoordinated movement and vision difficulties). This disorder can also be slowed or stopped.
Complications that may result include:
Contact your health care provider or go to the emergency room if you have symptoms of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, or if you have been diagnosed with the condition and your symptoms get worse or return.
Not drinking alcohol or drinking in moderation and getting enough nutrition reduce the risk of developing Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. If a heavy drinker will not quit, thiamine supplements and a good diet may reduce the chance of getting this condition, but the risk is not eliminated.
Koppel BS. Nutritional and alcohol-related neurologic disorders. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 26th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 388.
So YT. Deficiency diseases of the nervous system. In: Jankovic J, Mazziotta JC, Pomeroy SL, Newman NJ, eds. Bradley and Daroff's Neurology in Clinical Practice. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2022:chap 85.
Reviewed By: Joseph V. Campellone, MD, Department of Neurology, Cooper Medical School at Rowan University, Camden, NJ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.